“The Will to Play Together”: Jazz Music and the Crisis Over School Desegregation

Estimated Time of Completion: 1 week of class time; in addition, a week or more of work time outside the classroom.


  • To learn about the Civil Rights movement with a focus on Little Rock, Arkansas
  • To appreciate Louis Armstrong’s unparalleled contributions to American music.
  • To reflect on how jazz musicians expressed the zeitgeist of the Civil Rights era through their music.
  • To work in cooperative groups.

Materials Needed

  • The PBS documentary JAZZ. This lesson draws on sequences from many of the episodes.
    (Please note: Episode Nine contains the use of profanity. Be certain to screen the video before showing it to students.)
  • The PBS Web site for JAZZ, as well as other sites listed in the body of the lesson.
  • A tape recorder (optional but recommended).
  • Selections of jazz music, especially that of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and other jazz musicians recording in the late 1950s. Short excerpts from many of the great jazz artists will be available at the PBS JAZZ Web site. Or you may purchase CDs of the all-time most popular songs by the giants of jazz from Shop PBS.
  • Materials for writing scripts.


This lesson correlates to the National Standards for History, National Center for History in the Schools located online at https://socialsciences.ucla.edu/:

  • Explain the origins of the postwar civil rights movement and the role of the NAACP in the legal assault on segregation.
  • Evaluate the Warren Court’s reasoning in Brown V. Board of Education and its significance in advancing civil rights.
  • Explain the resistance to civil rights in the South between 1954 and 1965.

Procedures and Activities


Explain to your students that they are going to produce a jazz radio program as the school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas unfolds before the nation in early September of 1957. That fall, as children across the nation began school, nine African-American students stood at the gates of segregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas and were refused entry by Governor Orville Faubus. Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the children from entering, in a direct challenge to the federal government. Three years earlier in Brown v. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court had ruled that segregated schools were inherently unequal, and therefore unconstitutional. Faubus was determined not to let Central High School be integrated. Not since the Civil War had a state so blatantly challenged the power of the federal government. In early September, no one knew what would happen next.

Tell students that in their jazz radio broadcast they will interview many jazz musicians, legal scholars and writers, as well as play the jazz music of the 1950s. The most important guest on their show, however, will be Louis Armstrong. This is because in 1957 Armstrong risked his fame and fortune when he criticized President Eisenhower for failing to publicly support the Supreme Court decision and act forcefully in Little Rock. (Several weeks into the crisis Eisenhower did, in fact, send federal troops to Arkansas to ensure that Central High School would be integrated.) Additionally, Armstrong turned down a historic opportunity to go on goodwill tour of the Soviet Union for the State Department.

Assessment Suggestions

  • Students may be evaluated on the content of their portion of the radio broadcast. It should reflect the research they conducted.
  • Once you have recorded or presented the radio broadcast you can assign work based on the students’ newly-acquired understanding of school desegregation.
  • Students can evaluate each other or be evaluated by you for their ability to work as a member of a cooperative group.

Extensions / Adaptations

  1. What should be done to more fully integrate American schools and universities today? Ask students to suggest proposals and hold debates about various alternatives.
  2. When else in American history has the theory of states rights led to conflict with the federal government? Compare the arguments advanced by segregationists in Little Rock to Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification during the tariff crisis (1833), or South Carolina’s secession from the Union (1861).
  3. What should be the role of celebrities in politics? Compare the role of Louis Armstrong to movie stars and rock musicians in more recent years.
  4. Ask students to research the lives of Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong and compare them as men and jazz trumpeters.

About the Author

Joan Brodsky Schur teaches social studies and English at the Village Community School in New York City. Her work in the classroom has been described in various articles she has written over the years for Social Education. Joan and fellow-colleague Sari Grossman are the editors of In A New Land: An Anthology of Immigrant Literature. Joan is also a contributing author to the Constitution Community, a Web site of the National Archives at www.nara.gov/education/cc/.

All content in this curriculum provided by PBS. Chiaroscuro is not responsible for the content provided therein. Any questions, contact teachersource@pbs.org

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